Putting Health Back into Endurance Sports Felix Wong

Last week I wrote about how extreme amounts of exercise—amounts frequently undertaken by endurance athletes in so-called “ultra” sports events and training—are actually detrimental to one’s health and can accelerate aging.

So for someone like myself who really enjoys doing long-distance athletic events, this is a worry. Fortunately, I’ve never had anything but the most trivial of injuries (e.g., sprained ankle trying to kick out of cycling pedals with dirt in my cleats), rarely get sick, and look younger than I am (or so everyone keeps telling me).

I think I have stayed healthy by doing the following. By continuing in these practices, I hope to be able to do endurance events well into my 70s and 80s (since I really enjoy doing them). Please add your own tips in the comments forms below.

  1. Eat well. Vital! First, the demands of endurance sports are so great that one needs adequate nutrition to prevent getting sick. Second, eating well allows one to train less by not putting on weight in the off-season. I can get away with training a quarter the amount a person who puts 10 pounds in the off-season, since I do not need to exercise just to lose weight. Eating well is so important that I posted this article on quick and healthy meals.
  2. Train the minimum amount required to achieve goals. From 1996-2004 (the exception being 2003, a Paris-Brest-Paris and Ironman year for me), I had something of a reputation among friends for barely training—despite always having several high-endurance events scheduled each year—and this was not too far off base. During that time, not only was I working 40-60 hours/week, but there were plenty of non-athletic things I engaged in. So that is part of the reason.

    What I quickly learned, though, was that the body has an amazing memory, and even if I didn’t train for two months, I could come back and finish a double century without too much difficulty as long as I rode a little easier and paced myself. Events were also effective training for future events, and there were even a couple of years where I barely trained at all.

    Don’t believe me? You can check out my training log. Records go back to 1993 (at least for cycling).

  3. Cross-train. I enjoy doing a variety of different activities, so this didn’t take conscious effort to do. Sports included cycling, running, hiking, rock climbing, weight lifting, yoga, swimming, snowshoeing, and even tennis, badminton and basketball on occasion. Doing a variety of activities helps keep the body balanced.
  4. Weight lifting. Too much aerobic work eats muscle away. Long-distance cycling and running particularly seem to waste away the upper body muscles. There’s also a link between cycling and osteoporosis. To counteract all these things, I’ve lifted weights fairly regularly for the last 8 years.
  5. Not training while sore. I think this is also known as listening to one’s body and recovering well. I see no reason to train while sore and hence have rarely done so. (A recent exception to that rule was the Boulder 100, which I did with sore calves—a result of running a Boston-qualifying marathon the week before. Fortunately, I survived the event without injury and gave my legs plenty of rest for weeks afterwards to make sure they fully recovered.)
  6. Having an off-season of at least three to six months where I wouldn’t do more than 1-3 hours of aerobic work per week. This allowed the body to completely recover, gave both my mind and body a mental break, and freed up time for other (non-athletic) things. And guess what? Despite taking so much time off, I still have been consistently getting faster each year (running is a good example of setting new PRs every year; see record). Rest is good!
  7. Get enough sleep. Hard to do while working; easier while not. Hard to say how much is “enough” but for me it seems to be about seven or eight hours per night, minimum, while training.

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One comment on Putting Health Back into Endurance Sports

  1. Comment by JimB

    Hi Felix

    I agree with your points. A few anecdotes from my own training:

    1) Definitely helps to be avoid overtraining and do some cross training. In trying to keep up with ultra running training I have pushed hard to keep to a running schedule every over day and then become stale. After pulling back a bit and taking a 2 day break between runs I have come back refreshed and not felt a tired drag when I start a run. There is an emerging training philosophy now from the Furman Institute (http://www.furman.edu/first/fmtp.htm) of the benefits of running only 3 days a week and mixing in cross training.

    2) Weight training. Definitely helps give some overall balance to the body. Check out Joe Decker (www.joe-decker.com). Joe is a unique blend of powerlifter and ultra runner and a Guinness World Record holder for fitness. Probably one of the only guys to combine endurance and powerlifting sports at the elite level. I know Joe fairly well and he totally believes weight training keeps his body in good shape and helps with biomechanics for running.

    3) Overall Balance – careful dieting. I have had a tendency in the past to subscribe to the notion of ‘I can eat all I want because I will run it off’. As we all know a casual 30 minute evening run really does not justify chowing down a huge 3 course meal as a reward. For my latest run I have probably dropped 8-10lbs over the course of 4 months from just eating smaller portions. The difference in terms of balance is tremendous. I can literally feel the benefits of lugging a few pound less around when I run.

    Looking foward to your posts on diet – I’m still a bit weak when it comes to snacking on sweet, processed foods.

    Cheers

    Jim

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